William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Remember what we said about zombies

Zombie attacks to increase due to global warming” rang the headline on this blog seven moons ago. So said eminent zombiologist and scientist Dr Harrister, BS, MS, PhD, OMGWAG.

Who would have guessed that Bob Hope was ahead of us all?

I’ll tell you who! Pepsodent! With irium!

Thanks to Rob Avrech for reminding us of Hope’s wisdom.

Climate inactivism

Quick Quiz: what do you call an exceptionally nervous busybody who perpetually overestimates risk and on whose lips are forever the phrase, “Something must be done!”

Answer: That person is an activist—activism is a manner of life which nowadays can even be proclaimed a profession.

What, then, do we call somebody who rationally attempts to quantify risk and who soberly (on most days of the week) weighs his options and sometimes proposes that the best course of action is no action at all?

That person is an inactivist.

Isn’t that a great name? I love it! But I didn’t think of it. Frank Bi, who runs a site called The Journal of Inactivism, did.

Old Frank’s intent is that the label be taken ironically. To him, an inactivist is to be despised. Let me tell you something about irony, Frank. There’s an art to it that few possess; its use requires a rare talent. I sometimes flatter myself that I can successfully wield this heavy sword, but I fail nearly every time, as regular readers of this blog can attest.

And so have you failed, Frank, but do not despair. We can rescue your neologism and put it to good use. It can lead a second life of good service.

Thus, I counsel that we adopt the moniker “climate inactivist” at once. Just look what it has going for it.

“Climate skeptic”, a term many favor, is apt to be misleading. I, for example, am not skeptical that there is a climate. Inactivist, however, neatly captures and succinctly describes the attitude of many of us.

We, who do not deny that mankind influences climate, even sometimes harmfully, but who reckon that our uncertainty in the mechanisms of the hideously complex global climate system and the imprecision its forecasts, coupled with the glut of extravagant and ridiculous claims of evils that await us, are not strong enough evidence to yet warrant government-imposed mandatory taxes and regulation. We, who do not deny that that day might come, and who do not discourage voluntary and personal actions. We propose to take no action until our certainty is much stronger.

We propose to be inactive—we are inactivists.

This proposal will be voted upon at the next secret meeting.

Incidentally, to take us on a tangent to an unexpected dimension, Scott Kurtz presents the evil Statistician Magician! (I don’t have a cape.)

Which country did best in the Olympics?

(This analysis was suggested by reader Joy C., who provided a link to the medal tables.)

China, even disregarding its cheating, grabbed the most gold medals (51 to the USA’s next best 36), but the USA took the most overall (110 to China’s next best 100). Either country, then, could be argued the better one depending on whether you value just gold or all medals.

But are there better ways to compare success than raw totals? For example, tiny Jamaica won 11 total medals, while Poland which is over 10 times as populated took only 10. Obviously, countries with enormous populations have a better chance at taking more medals because they have a larger pool of athletes to draw from. China, for example, has over 1.32 billion souls, with the USA has less than their decimal point, with only 305 million. (Population data gathered from Wikipedia.)

Let’s control for a country’s population and re-rank. Here is a table of some of the top countries with the medal totals normalized by population—total medals divided by population in millions. The number “Medals per million” is the number of medals won per million people.

Rank Country Medals per million
1 Bahamas 6.04
2 Jamaica 4.05
3 Iceland 3.16
4 Slovenia 2.46
5 Australia 2.15
6 Cuba 2.13
7 New Zealand 2.11
8 Norway 2.09
9 Armenia 2
10 Belarus 1.96
15 Georgia 1.37
27 Britain 0.77
36 Canada 0.54
37 Russia 0.51
38 Germany 0.5
39 Italy 0.47
40 Spain 0.39
44 United States 0.36
60 Taiwan 0.17
68 China 0.08

The Bahamas tops the list: they won 2 medals with a population of only 330 thousand, an amazing feat, or perhaps I should say with amazing feet since their medals were in running events. Jamaica has 2.7 million people and won 11 medals. Ranking countries this way puts the USA down at number 44, with China not coming in until 68, with Taiwan ahead of it! Incidentally, the BBC site, one of the many hosting medal count tables, fearfully lists Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei”, which is meaningless because Taipei is only one city in Taiwan. China, with the world’s biggest population, can lower their denominator and do better next time if they institute a new Cultural Revolution. Georgia can also take some comfort for coming in well ahead of Russia (15th to 37th place).

Smaller countries also, as a matter of necessity, have to be more focused. Cuba, for example, won the majority of their medals in various martial arts (boxing, judo, and so on; perhaps they’re expecting something after Castro kicks over). The larger countries have entrants in most sports: both Communist China and the USA won their medals in dozens of events.

Here’s another way to look at the same data. This is a plot of the population (note the logarithmic scale) by the total number of medals won.
Population by total medals
Many of the names are tiny and unreadable, but the general drift can be seen: greater populations help win more medals, just as expected. But not always. India ranks in with over a billion residents, but only garnered a couple of medals. Indonesia and Russia are also hugely populated but have few medals to take home.

As always, money helps. Here is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a rough measure of economic output, by total medal count: (GDP estimated from Wikipedia.)
GDP by total medals
China looks like its GDP is just behind the USA, but it isn’t. For example, Japan is second, Germany third then China. Clearly, though, the more bucks the more bang. But as with population, not always. India’s GDP outstrips South Korea’s and Australia’s but it’s medal total is lower. One of the more interesting things about this graph is the wide range of GDPs: over 6 orders of magnitude!

The next step is to see the joint effect of increasing population and GDP. That’s what this next, more difficult, picture shows:
Population/GDP by total medals
Each dot is a country’s Population and GDP; the number beside it is the number of medals won. Darker circles help guide the eye to higher counts. The highest dozen Populations and the lowest GDPs are highlighted for easier recognition. The double bang received from having lots of people making lots of money is easily seen, but the relationship is not perfect.

I am not trying to predict the medal counts for the next Olympics, hence this is no real statistical model. To build one would require the data from previous Olympics, summer and winter, tracking the number of events, the changes in politics and inflation and on and on. Too much work and in the end there would be too much uncertainty that the model proposed is valid. Showing the data plainly is the fairest procedure.

Just for fun, and having nothing to do with the Olympics, here are the top and bottom 10 countries of dollars made per person (GDP divided by population). You can think of this as a sort of measure of citizen efficiency.

Rank Country Dollars made per citizen
1 Luxembourg 104,000
2 Norway 82,000
3 Qatar 81,000
4 Iceland 63,000
5 Ireland 58,000
6 Denmark 57,000
7 Switzerland 56,000
8 Sweden 49,000
9 Netherlands 47,000
10 Finland 46,000
159 Myanmar 270
160 Eritrea 270
161 Malawi 250
162 Ethiopia 250
163 Guinea-Bissau 200
164 Liberia 190
165 Congo 160
166 Burudi 120
167 North Korea 93
168 Zimbabwe 48

The USA makes the list at number 12 with about 45-thousand per person. England at number 11 is just about the same, mere dollars ahead. Non-Arabic Africa is at the bottom of all of these lists.

Of course, Luxemborg and Norway, at the top of this list, have less people that live in my neighborhood, so it isn’t entirely interesting. The largest population of the top 10 goes to Netherlands, which is equal to the population of Manhattan. Oh, the well run European countries! we often hear. But they are so tiny! Zimbabwe, the very bottom of the list, has about 13 million people with a paltry 48 bucks per head. North Korea’s population is estimated at about 24 million, but that was before last year’s winter, so their total dollars per capita could increase next year in that communist paradise.

Environmentalists feed people to dragons

Komodo dragons have been eating a lot of people in Indonesia lately and the locals blame environmentalists, as reported by Yaroslav Trofimov at the Wall Street Journal (a subscription is required; or borrow or buy today’s paper).

Apparently, in Indonesia, people used to hunt deer and leave portions of successful hunts to the komodo dragons. They also used to tie up goats as sacrifices. All of this pleased the dragons, which left the humans alone.

Then entered the Environmentalists from the Nature Conservancy, who sought and were awarded a ban on deer hunting. They also had dogs declared an “alien species”, thus outlawing them. Naturally, being sympathetic souls, they also got a ban on goat offerings. The reason they did all this, according to Widodo Ramono, the policy director of the environmentalist organization, was because he feared the komodo was becoming “domesticated.”

But, even though all the people in this group were no doubt armed with many letters after their names, each with multiple “studies” in hand, they forgot that the dragons had to eat.

So the dragons started wandering down to the villages and learned how tasty villagers and the villagers’ livestock were. “[T]oday the dragons are angry with us,” says villager Hajji Faisal, “and see us an enemies.” A man named Jamain, whose son was eaten, said “I don’t blame the dragons for my boy’s death. I blame those who forbade us from following custom and feeding them. If it weren’t for them, my boy would still be alive.”

Nature Conservancy officials think Jamain’s and other villagers’ arguments that the environmentalist policies are to blame are based on “superstition.” They instead accuse Jamain’s son for looking too delicious (no, my dear readers, I am not kidding). In words I believe he has never himself heeded, environmentalist Putri Naga Komodo said of the connection, “You’ve got to be very careful about extrapolating and drawing any conclusions.”

In banning age old practices, I can only ask, wither multiculturalism?

Be sure and read Trofimov’s full story, from which all the quotes were taken.

The Pathetic Madonna

The insane level of self-regard and idiotic self-indulgent behavior we accept from our celebrities should embarrass us.

There will always be utterly spoiled brats, but that these blots on humanity should be elevated to glorified status such that they are never held accountable for their tantrums is mind boggling.

The disrespectfully-self-named teen-music singer ‘Madonna’ is the latest in an unfortunately long and growing line of such luminaries. At a concert away from her home country yesterday, she played a song, apparently autobiographical, entitled “Get Stupid”, during which John McCain’s “image was flashed up alongside images of destruction and global warming and of Hitler and Mugabe” (from MSN news.)

This is no different than a rotten child going into the home of another and disparaging and disowning her family because she was denied a treat. It is pathetic, cowardly and ordinarily induces disgust on those who witness the spectacle.

But not if that person is a celebrity. Then, even though fans know better, they reach with all their might to seek justification and a reasonable explanation of their idol’s outburst. They should shun the woman, but they don’t want to deny themselves the small entertainment they receive from the simplistic music, so they relax their own morals. In short, the fans only think of their own pleasures, thus effectively mimicking what they have seen.

Well, all that is not new or even unexpected nowadays. This sort of thing is so common that my indignation probably seems out of place and reactionary.

What makes it worse is the reporting. Try Googling “Madonna Hitler” and you will see numerous headlines like this: “McCain camp blasts Madonna’s Hitler dig,” and “McCain staff slams ‘outrageous’ comparison with Hitler by Madonna.” Note the scare quotes around outrageous which, as the philosopher David Stove has taught us, means “not really outrageous but thought by so-and-so to be outrageous.”

The reporters, people who we are repeatedly told are well educated and discerning, cannot bring themselves to say what is obvious. They instead blame the “controversy”, using their best questions-were-raised style of empty prose, and say it is McCain’s staff that is having the problem.

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